As he and his team prepare for the season opener Saturday against Stonehill, Northeastern head coach Jerry Keefe graciously took time from his day and sat down with me for an interview looking ahead to this season. We discussed the overarching identity and his vision for the program, talked about the individual players on the team, and looked ahead to some of the expectations for the team and the players he has this season.
Many thanks to Coach Keefe and Northeastern SID Sidney Binger for helping set this up.
Northeastern Hockey Blog: What’s the vibe going into the season? How does the team look, and are there any significant differences that you are noticing between last year and this year?
Jerry Keefe: I thought the vibe was really good last year going into the year, the expectations were obviously super high. This year I feel that we have the same expectation, but we had some who thought it was just gonna happen last year because of talent. Whereas this year, we expect to do well but we know it’s not going to just happen. We have to work for it, to earn it. We have 13 new guys and they have all fit in well, they really appreciate being here which is awesome. They like how we do things, and I think we have really good leadership. The big test is when you hit some adversity, right now everyone loves their team, everyone’s happy, and all of a sudden you get punched in the mouth a little bit and it’s how you react from that.
NUHB: Is there a particular style, identity, way you want to play? If you were to define “Husky hockey,” what does that mean to you in your third year as you mold the program to what you want it to be?
JK: Relentless when we don’t have the puck. A team that can strike quick, but when we don’t have the puck work to get it back. For whatever reason, I’ve gotten a reputation as a defensive coach, which is funny to me because I’ve always been known as the offensive type of guy. I like offense. With that being said, you’ve got to work to get the puck back, otherwise you’re chasing the game all the time. I think of a guy like Adam Gaudette, he was one of the best players in college hockey but he worked so hard to get the puck when he didn’t have it and that’s why he was so good offensively. So, I like those type of players, really skilled, smart hockey IQ guys that work, simple as that. That’s why a guy like Justin Hryckowian is a good player, not a perimeter guy, not a soft skill guy, when he doesn’t have it, he works.
So I think for us when looking at an identity, we want to be a team that is a puck possession team that can wear you down offensively. We are not a team that will shoot the puck from everywhere, we like guys who possess the puck. I’d rather 10 Grade A chances than 25 just shots on net. And the better you check in the middle of the rink, the more transition you get. When you’re good in the neutral zone, turnovers cause chances going the other way. You need to be good on both sides of the puck. We owe it to players to teach players how to play a pro game, which I take a lot of pride in, where someone like Aidan McDonough, Jordan Harris, can go to the NHL and they say “he knows how to play the game.”
NUHB: What are some other strengths that you see in this team and where are some areas that you see could improve as games start?
JK: I feel like we are older on the blue line, which is a strength right now. We have 5 veteran defensemen with 3 returners and (Pito) Walton and Stauds (Matt Staudacher) who are fifth year veterans who’ve played at a high level. Then we have the freshman Michael Fisher who we think is going to be a really good player, but we have 5 guys with him which we like. Last year we were young on the blue line. I look at our group (overall) and I feel that we have two Number One lines. Right now we have (Liam) Walsh, (Matt) Demelis, and Dylan Hryckowian on the third line. I love that line, I think Walshie is going to take a step this year. When it’s all said and done I think Hryckowian will be one of the better players in our league.
Matt Demelis is one of the most underrated hockey players. I said to him the other day while watching video, “if I had to go on vacation, you could coach this team at this point.” I think he’s that intelligent. What happens with him is that you can trust him so much, it can take away from his offense but he has a good skillset, so I think putting him on the wing will help him out offensively. He’s going to get some powerplay time, he’s one of the first guys over the boards for the PK. He’s going to play minutes for us.
NUHB: You mention the powerplay. Last year, it had some uncharacteristic struggles with high spots, low points, scoring droughts. What do you see the powerplay doing this year to have success- is it personnel, is it style, aggressiveness?
JK: It’s personnel, I think it’s getting the whole group to really feel good about what we are doing, I didn’t get that feeling last year. When our powerplay has been at its best it’s never been about one player, it’s always been about all five players. Last year it just didn’t mesh. It was kind of like driving a square peg into a round hole. And with a powerplay, you can’t dwell on it. I felt last year we dwelled on (failure) too much. This year we have new personnel, three players on the top unit that are different. Ritzy was good on it last year, I like Gunnar at the top. Pito Walton brings a different element because he can shoot a puck. Borgesi has been playing on the powerplay right now and I think he’s a good distributor. I like the way it’s shaping up right now.
NUHB: You’ve mentioned Aidan McDonough. Devon Levi’s shadow looms large with what’s changing year to year. Starting with Aidan, how do you go about replacing someone like him: powerplay fixture, first line fixture, goal scorer- is it going to be more spread out, looking to players to step up and fill the void?
JK: Yeah I do think it’s going to be spread out more. I think the easy answer is to say (Alex) Campbell because he’s a left shot who will play with Ritzy. He’s a different player than Dunzo but he has the ability to score 15-20 goals. I think this year some guys that should have gotten more opportunity last season will get a chance. Matt Choupani- not everyone gets to be top six right away. He didn’t complain, just kept working and working, goes out and scores 10 goals last year on the fourth line quite a bit. Now it’s his time. I think he’s a guy that will take on some of that scoring. I think there’s more in Gunnar Fontaine, so we’re looking to him to take the step offensively. I think Jack Williams is really underrated, reminds me of Ritzy. I think he’s an all-league player and could play in the NHL some day.
NUHB: When you look to goaltender, Cameron Whitehead comes in with a pedigree and reputation, drafted by Vegas. Connor Hopkins comes in. Two returners. How do you see the goaltending position playing out?
JK: Whitehead’s the guy. We brought him in to be the next guy for us, following Primeau, Levi, and now it’s Whitehead. We are excited for him, he’s got a lot of talent. He’s not Dev, nobody is the same person. We don’t want him to be Dev, we want him to be Whitehead. We’re not worried about him trying to replace Dev. We feel he is a legit number one goaltender in college hockey, and it’s his job to lose.
I do like Connor Hopkins though, I watched him a lot growing up. He was a highly recruited goaltender and for whatever reason he didn’t get going at Yale. He had some bad injuries. In the preseason, he’s looked good. He’s a guy that we feel comfortable playing. He’s got a little bit to prove. I feel good about the goaltending situation. Obviously Whitehead is a freshman which isn’t always easy, but we have a lot of confidence in him, he’s going to be a good one.
NUHB: You’ve mentioned a few players- Choupani, Lund, Williams, in terms of breakouts- is there maybe a player who is less talked about us, maybe by us or other media, who you think will be vital to success this year.
JK: Everyone starts at the top, everyone knows Ritzy. He’s gonna be starting out with Choups, who I think is gonna take a step. Campbell, I don’t think people realize how good he is. Then you go to Gunnar, Jack Williams, and Cam Lund, who has the ability to be one of the best players in college hockey, no question in my mind. Then you have Walshie, who had a slow start and got hurt, and he ended up with eight goals. I think he’s a guy that could have a good year for us. Then you’re looking into your depth guys. (Eli) Sebastian, he’s gonna be a really good college hockey player, he’s a freshman so it’ll take time. Billy Norcross, up and down, hard-nosed, he’s physical, a pain in the ass to play against, he can skate, he fits that identity. I think we have two Number One Lines, I like that third line because Dylan Hryckowian can bring that dynamic piece to it, Walshie’s an older guy who can play a heavy game, and Demelis can just play any way you want to play.
I think Borgesi is going to take a big step this year. Hunter McDonald is obviously a pretty good player, and we want him to continue to grow. But I think Borgesi’s the guy who can take a big step for us.
NUHB: I felt in the offseason a lot of people may be overlooking (Jackson) Dorrington a little bit. Playing on his off-side, not a big offensive contributor, but brings a physical element to the game Northeastern historically has had but as the game changes gets rarer.
JK: That’s a key thing right there (playing on his off-side). And he played with (McDonald) last year, another freshman. When you look at Dorrington’s body of work, he played a lot of minutes for us last year. Some mistakes made but the experience for him was huge. I look at Dorrington now, he’s a veteran for us which is crazy, he’s an ’04 birthday, but he’s a veteran back there. He’s big on the PK too. He got a lot bigger and stronger, he’s got a presence to him.
NUHB: How has Michael Fisher’s recovery been going? (Writer note: Fisher suffered an injury in the USHL preseason and missed most of last season before enrolling at Northeastern this summer)
JK: Excellent. This past June is when he started feeling back to 100% normal. He had a really good preseason, his strength and conditioning is back where he wants it to be. He’s a beast of a kid. I think the nice part for him from a development standpoint is we have some older guys around him, and we want to make sure we are putting him in a spot to succeed. With Fish, I think we can make sure that we are managing him the right way and gradually see him getting better than better.
NUHB: Lastly: What does Justin Hryckowian mean to you as a player and as a leader for what you want this program to be?
JK: He’s the guy when you think of Northeastern hockey. I thought Jordan Harris was like that. I thought Aidan McDonough was like that. And now it’s Ritzy. He does everything you want in a hockey player. Some kids can do everything you ask, but they’re not just elite players. He has it all because he’s an elite player on both sides of the puck. He does everything the right way. He wants to be a hockey player, he wants to be a pro, he wants to put in the work to be a pro, he doesn’t just talk about it. When you’re a coach and you look down the bench, you know you have a gamer. I know me and him are on the same page with how we see the game and what it takes to have success as a player, so it’s nice when yourself and your captain see things the same way. He’s a special kid, no question. He’s a guy that turned down NHL contracts to come back, and I think that kind of says it all.
I like to think some of the guys we’ve had come through have a part (in the mentality Hryckowian displays) because they pass it down to the next group. You look at a guy like Manson, then John Stevens, then Aston-Reese, then Jeremy Davies, Ryan Shea- they are tremendous players and people, and they keep passing it down, and now it’s Ritzy’s team.
Again, a heartfelt thank you to Coach Keefe for taking the time to answer my questions and for his thoughtfulness and thoroughness with his responses. This program is clearly in good hands and is being molded into the true next generation of Northeastern Husky Hockey, and I can’t wait to see the team in action. The road starts this weekend with Stonehill and then an exhibition against Quinnipiac, so Northeastern will jump right into the deep end to see where they measure up against the competition.
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As always, go Huskies!